National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the Mighty Eighty Air Force Museum outside Savannah. Next year, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will release another of their HBO miniseries, based on the 100th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, again using real life airmen they researched in the museum’s archives.

Enjoy.

Sacrifice Remembered, Symbol Restored

By Mark Yost

Pooler, Georgia

‘The Greatest Generation” is a common moniker given to the men and women who served in World War II. But after going through the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in this suburb of Savannah, it will be clear that the airmen of this highly distinguished unit earned some superlatives all their own.

B17Most people probably know the story of the Eighth Air Force from “Twelve O’Clock High,” the film and TV series based on the unit’s missions. But visitors will learn that the Eighth Bomber Command (redesignated the Eighth Air Force in February 1944) was activated at nearby Hunter Army Airfield in January 1942 and almost immediately departed for England. Its primary mission: bombing industrial targets inside Nazi Germany. At its peak in 1944, the Eighth had some 200,000 men and on any given day from its airfields in East Anglia, England, could launch 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 escort fighters on a single mission, making it the single-largest air armada in history. But those missions came with a heavy price: Some 47,000 men from the Eighth were either killed, captured or reported missing in action, accounting for half of all the U.S. Army Air Corps’ casualties. One of the Eighth’s units, the 100th Bombardment Group, earned the nickname “the Bloody Hundredth” for the casualties it suffered. In an October 1943 raid on Münster, Germany, for example, only one B-17 out of 13 made it back to the airfield at Thorpe Abbotts.

Those are the facts and figures that are presented in the 90,000 square feet of space divided into a dozen galleries that include artwork, diaries, maps, photos and dioramas, as well as the usual artifacts. The most recent addition among the bomber jackets, caps, bullets, ball turrets and medals is a fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress, a gift from the National Air and Space Museum that was unveiled on Jan. 28 and now sits in the center of the museum’s Combat Gallery. The project, which took six years, was important because some 4,700 B-17s were lost during the war. Afterward, most were destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Today, fewer than 50 B-17s remain, with only about a dozen restored to flying condition.

There is also “The Mission Experience,” where visitors are given an overview of the Eighth Air Force, attend a mock preraid planning meeting, and then go into a theater for a film that tries to give them a sense of what it was like to be at 32,000 feet, with temperatures well below zero, flying for hours on oxygen, constantly harassed by German fighter planes and flak, the English abbreviation for Flugzeugabwehrkanone, or “aircraft-defense gun.”

But where the museum excels is in telling the personal stories of the men and the missions of the Eighth Air Force. Among them, Robert Rosenthal, who a plaque tells us was the pilot of Royal Flush, that lone B-17 that returned from the raid on Münster. “With two engines out, a hole in the starboard wing, and three wounded crewmembers, Rosie maneuvered his stricken bomber like a fighter which forced the attacking Germans to seek an easier target.”

In a small gallery honoring Medal of Honor winners is the story of First Lt. Donald J. Gott, whose plane was heavily damaged and caught fire during a raid over Saarbrücken in November 1944. “Antiaircraft fire had wounded the flight engineer’s leg and severed the radio operator’s arm causing him to lose consciousness,” his plaque reads.

Because the radio operator was unconscious, Gott refused to give the order to bail out. Instead, he flew the plane on one engine to friendly territory. “He ordered his crew to bail out while he and his co-pilot, William Metzger, Jr., attempted to land the aircraft with the wounded radio operator aboard. At only 100 feet above the ground, the aircraft exploded . . . ”

The highly decorated unit’s most devastating day might have been Oct. 14, 1943, known as Black Thursday, its second mission to take out the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. As one of the informative panels notes, the Allies did not have the air superiority they would enjoy some eight months later in Normandy for the D-Day landings. That morning 251 B-17s left England and by the time the sortie returned, 60 bombers had been lost. An additional 12 subsequently had to be scrapped, and 121 needed extensive repairs. Worse yet, 600 airmen were lost over enemy territory, and those planes that did make it back carried five dead and 43 wounded.

While much is made of the B-17—both here and in the history books—the museum also tells the story of the Second Air Division, a unit of the Eighth Air Force that included some 9,000 officers and 45,000 enlisted men who flew the slightly smaller B-24 Liberators on some 94,000 sorties during 400 missions from 1942 to 1945. And it has a section devoted to the VIII Fighter Command, the escort squadrons of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and, later in the war, P-51 Mustangs that tried to keep the German fighters from decimating the bombers before they could reach their targets.

The museum also doesn’t shirk from discussing the political feud between Eighth Air Force commanders and Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris of RAF Bomber Command, who ridiculed U.S. daylight bombing tactics and greatly underestimated the accuracy of the American’s Norden bombsight. The men of the Eighth Air Force not only destroyed Germany’s industrial might, but also inflicted far fewer civilian casualties than did British nighttime raids.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

2 Responses to National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

  1. Robert Gross says:

    A great article.. I flew 33 missions in 1944 with the 34 th BG of the 3rd Bomb Div. stationed at Mendelsham flying B-24 ‘s. When told about joining any mission with the 100th we would shutter, as their episode with German fighters when allegedly one of their bombers with wheels down(indicating surrender) opened fire on the Germans. From there on flying with the 100th was the kiss of death.

  2. Ed Shill says:

    Well done Yosty…in NYC today for corning’s annual love fest

    Ed Shill QCI Asset Mgmt Cell: (585) 734 0529

    >

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